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Stone Paves Path to Church's Future

Syrian artists build altar for October consecration.

The Rev. George Rados and his parish have gone 25 years without a permanent place of worship.

Their search has taken them to firehouses and elementary schools and finally to the former school site on River Road where Sts. Peter and Paul Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church now stands.

But the church isn't complete. It needs a permanent altar, and an iconostasis — a curved stone partition with inset icons that separates the altar from the sanctuary. And that search took them all the way to Syria.

TWO SYRIAN ARTISTS are currently installing the iconostasis and altar at Sts. Peter and Paul. The 17 tons of rose and cream-colored stone arrived in 90 crates. It was quarried from holy lands that are the ancestral home of the Orthodox Church.

“This is the stone where Alexander the Great walked and where the apostles Paul and Peter walked, and where the Virgin Mary walked,” said Ruth Ann Skaff, a parishioner who does development work for the national Antiochian Orthodox Church out of Sts. Peter and Paul’s office. “That stone is linking us, bringing it here to this country links us with our roots.”

In commissioning the icons to be set in the iconostasis, Rados saw an opportunity to draw out that linkage between past and present. One is a traditional image of Saints Peter and Paul standing together, holding in their hands a church. At Sts. Peter and Paul, the image is of their church, in the hands of its namesakes.

IT’S EASY TO SEE the installation of the iconostasis at Sts. Peter and Paul as the end of a journey. The church is celebrating its 25th year, but has never had a permanent home. In October, the Potomac site will be formally consecrated as part of a week-long celebration.

But Rados calls the installation of the iconostasis and the upcoming consecration “a stepping stone.”

Rados and 60 parishioners of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., founded the church in May 1979. They worshipped first in St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church on Bradley Boulevard and then in a converted firehouse further east on Bradley, before buying the River Road property from the French International School in 1995. While the current church was in construction, they held services in another firehouse, at St. George’s and at Potomac Elementary.

The parishioners moved into the social hall on the current site in 2001 and finally into the completed church in 2002. Since then, it has operated with a temporary altar and iconostasis.

“The altar’s got to be consecrated. Of course you can’t consecrate it until you’ve got it,” said Nick Nahas, a parishioner and volunteer who overseen the iconostasis project for four years. “It’s been a long time in coming, and I think everybody will be pleased when they see it. I hope they will”

THE ARTISTS, Soleman Shalhoub and Basam Al Barchini, have been working 14-hour days for a month.

They move around the sanctuary with levels and drills. An assistant vacuums up stone dust. They periodically step back and assess their work.

Even before the long trip from Syria last month, Shalhoub and Al Barchini spent months with a crew that carved each piece of stone by hand.

There are domes and arcs and spiraled pieces, but rarely a hard edge.

“Everything is round in our church,” said the Rev. George Rados of Sts. Peter and Paul. “Domes create an atmosphere of eternity … once you make a circle you don’t know where you begin and where you end.”

RADOS BEGAN planning the installation by studying ancient Syrian churches at the Library of Congress in 2001.

“Everything I did in the church is to revive or have a kind of renaissance of Antiochian architecture [and] art,” he said. “I pressed on my community here that we wouldn’t just build an A-frame building, but that we would try to stick to our rich culture.”

He passed his studies on to a parishioner who is an art editor at National Geographic who drew up preliminary designs. Another parishioner — an architectural engineer — translated those drawings into a viable blueprint.

The parish discovered Shalhoub’s company — Shalhoub Trading Company— after it designed an iconostasis for St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Livonia, Mich.

“We were back and forth by e-mail and by telephone 50 times a week,” said Nahas.

Shalhoub is a third-generation artisan, who Skaff called “a poet in his heart as well as with his hands.”

The church raised more than $200,000 to pay for the iconostasis. In October, high clergy including Metropolitan Philip Saliba, leader of the Orthodox Church will take part in the consecration, placing relics in the altar and then washing the altar with rosewater and anointing the walls of the church.

Sitting in his church office, the sound of the installation work echoes from the sanctuary behind Rados. “Of course we’re on a journey,” he said. “But the journey’s never over till you get to heaven.”

RADOS, 70, HAS a vivid sense of history. He can talk fluently about ancient artifacts, modern politics, and the roots of the Orthodox Church.

The Pentarchy — the five-pillared Christian Church that grew up around the Mediterranean in the early modern era, ruled in parallel from Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Antioch, in modern Turkey.  It stood for nearly 1,000 years before Rome broke off and gave rise to Western, or Roman Catholicism. It was another 500 years before Martin Luther voiced his grievances in Wittenberg and gave rise to the Protestant Reformation.

Eastern Orthodoxy, largely eclipsed in this country by Catholicism and the many branches of Protestantism, finds its roots in the ancient church.

“This branch of the church … is heir to that history. I can trace the history of my organization back to the apostles themselves. We’re new in America, but we’re old in the world,” Rados said.

“These are the stones where … Jesus of Nazareth touched [his] feet and left a legacy where civilizations were born,” Shalhoub said in written remarks, translated from Arabic. “These stones not only remind us of our great past, but demand of us a new vision for the future.”

Rados shares that vision. Nearing retirement, he has an eye to the future of his parish.

“I want to leave a legacy of some sort,” he said. “And it’s not because I want my name attached to anything — I don’t want any of it. It’s just because I want the church to be here for the people. Because I feel the church is the answer to a lot of the world’s problems today. We need to understand what real peace is, and what real love is.”